Terry Ann Thaxton approaches her third book of poetry, Mud Song, with a native Floridian’s familiarity. We know about Florida oranges, alligators, and hurricanes, and she doesn’t ignore these attributes, but there’s a lot more of Florida in her book that won the 2017 T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry.
Eliot’s wide-ranging poetry made frequent use of similes and metaphors, and Thaxton is quite skilled at that technique. “In Memory of Me” is a good example: “My hands feel as though they are draped from the top limb // of the camphor tree that stood outside my window, like a curtain / through my days of grading papers.”
More literary tropes are found in the title poem, “Mud Song”:
Though I’ll never again see
my parents, their lives are nailed to mine.
Like their little girl of silver I wait for the call,
still angry at my hands, like pebbles, in the kitchen sink.
Thaxton doesn’t hesitate to expose a variety of her home state’s salient properties. And also like Eliot, portions of her poetry reflect negativity, as in these lines from “The Truth About Florida”:
At the Florida/Georgia border:
clouds, rain, and free orange juice.
And down the center more registered
hate groups than in any other state.
Earlier in this poem, she gives her audience this image that lingers in my mind:
One year, a car dealership fell into the sand
It became a festival, a carnival—
[ . . . ] and at the bottom of the sinkhole
(three-hundred-twenty feet wide, ninety feet deep);
an old woman’s house and dozens of crushed Porsches.
Some sections of her book touch on melancholy. Or maybe it’s just reality, as in this sentence from “Soldier’s Creek Trail”: “She knows the flowers coming from the dead trunk up ahead / will soon form on her forehead.”
Then there’s the state’s reputation as a retiree destination, which Thaxton treats in “Florida Survival Guide”:
Here, in Florida, you do not need a watch.
Here you begin to understand why the elderly
spend years in the swamp, waiting to wear
the grave’s black hair.
On a lighter note, I found dozens of beautiful phrases within Thaxton’s poetry. Her metaphoric thinking shows through in fragments like this one from “Near Dusk”: “Today the sky // tastes gray, like clouds, [ . . ]” or this one in “Window Seat”: “the dried flowers in this vase anchor / the morning,” and “minutes watch the pillow where you try to sleep” from “The Envelope.”
I especially like her wording in “Protection” as she conveys this particular scene. She’s walking her dog one morning, and “Two unfenced dogs / cross the street, and my dog’s mid-back rises / like bacon from a frying pan.”
As in much modern poetry, however, some stanzas remain open to interpretation. An example that stumped me, though I did find it intriguing, is how she kicks off “Florida Trail, Hopkins Prairie”:
The day moved like a mule playing a harp
each step on top of the pine straw
wrapped my old crimes—
my somber arm heard the song
of the tree covered in ash.
The sagging house became night,
a dream that unmasked
the borrowed jar.
Poets all over the world include moms and dads in their work, and Thaxton is no exception. In Mud Song, both parents play a role in this scary picture she paints in “Alligators”:
She leaps from the water
toward my brother. I watch from the riding mower
as the mother alligator chases him. Dad yells,
jumps toward it with his sickle.
Mother comes out with a shotgun, shoots it
between the eyes.
Many of the poems in Mud Song work off of a sense of touch, incorporating the word “hands.” In addition to the example above in “Mud Song,” “Pagan Shoes” uses repetition for emphasis:
Picture frames are falling off my face
like oak leaves from the past fifty years
surrounding hands that do not look like mine.
[ . . . ] But these hands/cannot be mine.
[ . . . ] These hands are not mine.
Within other poems in the book, the words “glass” and “grass” often pop up to foster even more continuity in the collection.
In Mud Song, Thaxton has successfully combined eloquence with openness in a book that deserves a place at the top of your reading list.